There's no such thing as a clean slate Barry Magid April 16th 2022

Download Talk

This week we saw across America Jews come together to celebrate Passover. If you’re in a Christian sect you will celebrate Easter. This reflects the reality that Zen and the Buddhism that we are part of, is not native to our country. None of us were born into Buddhist families. Sometimes we’re referred to as convert Buddhism, rather than traditional Asian Buddhism, but even that phrase is misleading because I think it’s unusual for most people to think of themselves as having converted to Buddhism when they begin this practice.

When we take jukai, we say I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha. Traditionally that taking refuge is meant as becoming a Buddhist. For many people, jukai is a time to come to terms with just what relationship they have to Buddhism as a religion, Zen as a practice. How does that relate to their family and religion of origin? Are we able to practice two religions at once? Is it not really for us a religion but a practice? So what’s the difference?

Now it’s more or less inevitably the case that because we were not born into Buddhist families, there is something about the religion that we all grew up with, whatever it was, that felt unsatisfactory, or lacking something. It was associated with a family or cultural situation that we wanted an alternative to, that we wanted to get away from. Practice in Buddhism has an element of home-leaving for us in that sense. It leaves us with the question: What is our relationship to our original home? A saying attributed to Trungpa goes like this: If you think you’re enlightened, just go home to your family for the holidays. It’s a time when people are left with very problematic or conflicted relations with their family or their religious origins.

Some of you were down in Philadelphia for the sesshin in which Peter Nichols received dharma transmission. In part of that ceremony, he goes around and makes bows to his teachers, parents, and ancestors. As this was taking place in a Catholic retreat center, he made bows in the chapel in the retreat house, in homage to his Catholic origins, with which he had his own complicated relationship. At one point he even went to a Catholic seminary, and then decided that was unsatisfactory. But in one way or another, as part of that ceremony, he acknowledged, This is where I came from.

I think it’s part of our practice that we all have to acknowledge one way or another, there’s no such thing as a clean slate. There’s no complete do-over or starting over when we begin this practice. There’s that dimension that we encounter where it’s just now, just this, that’s all. This dimension is real. There’s also always a dimension of cause and effect, of context. Cause of self is empty. The self is the sum of all the contexts and conditions that arise over the years. In the same way we chant “Seventy-two labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us.” We’re in the position of the food. Seventy-two conditions make us who we are, we should know how we got here.

It’s like Hyakujo and the fox, the story of the old teacher who thought that the enlightened person is not subject to cause and effect, and as a result was reborn for 500 lives as a fox. My name, which in America is Magid, was originally Maggid, a Hebrew surname. My family came at the turn of the twentieth century from Ukraine, from Odessa, landed in Montreal, where the French influence changed the name from Maggid to Magid. Maggid, in Hebrew, means something like a teacher.

If you read Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, you find different Maggids which sound very much like Zen teachers. Students did not come to hear Maggid’s sermons on the Bible. They watched him tie his shoes. How very Zen. Sometimes I feel like I’m staying in the family business, in the tradition, as a Maggid, a teacher, but I’ve changed shape. I’m a Jew teaching as a fox.

In any case, these are all times in which we can reflect on our families, our origins, what we think we’re doing here as Buddhists, going into practice. Are we Buddhists? Are we going into therapy, or some other kind of yoga? Are we converting to something? What is the question? I think people are entitled to come up with different answers to it. I’ll try to stress that I think this is a religious practice, that to me religious practice means something different from a technique to get healthy, to make oneself sane or calm or something else like that.

Not everybody shares that; not everybody has to share that. As we begin this book of Householder Koans, I suggest a prompt question for our discussion: What makes them koans? In particular, when the story revolves around a family member with an addiction problem, what makes that story a koan? We’re used to confronting stories like that as problems. When we learn this person is addicted, we want them to be able to stop. What can we do to get them off drugs? What can we do to keep them clean and sober? These are problems. And there are better and worse answers to these questions. That’s not the same as treating it as a koan. There’s a difference. That’s the question I want to leave you with.

Next Talk

Barry Magid April 23rd 2022 Life as a problem, life as a koan

Previous Talk

Barry Magid April 9th 2022 What's really going on?

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.